What To Do On A Three-Hour Layover in Dubai International Airport — Nothing

Greetings from Dubai International Airport. It’s 88F at 2am in the lovely metropolis in the middle of the United Arab Emirates. Terminal 3 is a sprawling complex of international shops and restaurants, all open at 2am. There’s even a little calm oasis in here. I feel like taking a swim.

Who am I kidding? I’m still on Morocco time after a 7-hour flight in a full coach cabin, with a 10-hour flight ahead of me. My body is a bit achy, twitchy and sleep-deprived. I don’t sleep on planes, so I might crack up a bottle of duty-free Jack Daniels to help me pass out.

On the good side, it’s my first time on Emirates Airlines and they do a good job on getting you in and out. Coach isn’t so bad when have 1,500 programs to choose from. I got to watch the Real Housewives of Abu-Dhabi where Fatima was enraged that Amal showed up late too her son’s 5th birthday party.

I got a whiff of the outside word when disembarking on the tarmac for 20 seconds. It’s still an intense heat in the middle of the night for late October.

Well, I’m going to grab some much needs vitamins from a smoothie and next time I’ll be posting from sunny Cape Town, South Africa!

Patisserie Bennis in Casablanca Fulfills All Your Moroccan Treat Dreams

You should be eating these lovely treats right now, but you are not. Those treats won’t eat themselves. Get over here!

Pâtisserie Bennis is Casablanca’s most famous bakery, turning out scrumptious little Moroccan goodies since the 1930s. Located in the Habous section of the city, four generations of bakers turn out hundreds of sheets of treats a day.

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Here in Morocco, it is customary for people to serve their guests mint tea and treats. When I got to my Riad in Marrakesh, I was served with an assortment of treats. In my hotel here in Casablanca, I had a plate waiting for me.

Thus, I had to snag a box for myself, and taste the best of the best.

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First off, the bakery and the Habous area are not centrally located, you’ve got a good 30-35 minute walk from the city center. Then, Google maps has the location wrong. They have the address of the actual bakery, not the store front to buy them. See the picture above. It’s 20 yards down the streets towards the heart of Habous.

You walk through a narrow hallway to get to the main room. As I discovered, there’s no counter or display cases. That got me confused. “Where the eff do I give you my money?” I thought to myself.

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You want the room directly in front of you where the door is usually closed. They just close it to keep the cookies from the outside world.

In French, just ask for one small box (une petite boîte), or just make a box shape with your hands. It will cost you 90MAD ($9.50), cash only. The guy will throw in a dozen varieties of treats, mostly notably the crescent shaped almond cookie scented with orange flour water and cinnamon. It’s their most popular and they will gladly give you a free taste. They go through 7,000 of those bad boys a day and all are made by hand.

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You get about 30 treats in the box, and they are staring at me as I type this. They won’t last when I leave tomorrow. Each one has a unique texture and just the right size for snacking. My kingdom for some mint tea so I can wash these down.

If you are with a group and can’t help but want to eat them right there, just take your package to the nearby square or to Isesco Park, which is a five-minute walk away. You can feed your crumbs to the stray cats.

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First Impressions of Casablanca, Morocco — How Do You Say Ashtray in French?

Greeting from Casablanca. Just when I got the hang of life in the Marrakesh Medina, I had to take a 3-hour train to Morocco’s largest city and financial hub.

This is essentially one of two long layovers until I eventually arrive in South Africa on Saturday. This was my second rest day for my month-long trip, where I just need to sleep all-day, do laundry and take a swim.

The word Casablanca probably conjures up one of the greatest movies of all time before you think of the actual city. You’ll see posters and pictures from the movie all around the city. It’s in the lobby of my hotel, in the bar, in restaurant fronts and tourism guides. I don’t want to be the one to tell them this but, A) The movie was never shot here, B) The writers oft he originally story never went to Casablanca. They were inspired by Vienna and cafes in the South of France.

In any event, I’ve got all-day tomorrow to see the sites using the NY Times 36 Hours as my guide, and I already knocked out two tonight. More on those places later.

In the video, a person says, “Casablanca is the heart of Morocco.” I kind of consider it the ashtray of Morocco. Despite the magnitude of activity, noise and occasional smell of feces in Marrakesh, the wonderful smells of jasmine, cinnamon, flowers, spices, leather, grilled meats and clean desert air fills up your lungs. Here, it is fresh cigarette smoke, stale cigarette smoke, exhaust and the desperation of older French men trying to score with young, petite Moroccan women.

There are no smoke free areas. My hotel room smells of it, the beach smells, the pool area smells and the bars have that pumped in with fans blowing it all around. Now, I smell like an old college dive bar in the mid-90s on a Friday night.

Traffic wise, it’s a mess like other Middle Eastern and North African countries. Take Los Angeles, add uniform traffic cops with whistles, drivers with no regard for safety, unregulated cars and pedestrians out for a death wish and you’ll get the picture.

Casablanca definitely has the better nightlife … I think. My hotel is by the beach and there are 3 or 4 boulevards and side streets lined with clubs with nobody in them. At 10pm on a Wednesday,  the bouncers and staff seem to outnumber the customers.

Now, if you excuse me, I have to hang myself out a window to get the smoke off of me.

How To Eat at The Jemaa el Fna Food Stalls and Hopefully Not Get Ill

I am two days removed from eating dinner at the Jamaa el Fna food stalls and I am functioning in all aspects of daily life. While the smells of grilled meats and constant stimulus will bring you in, I have a few tips and insider knowledge to pass along on your visit to Marrakesh.

First off, I posed a question to a local guide on which stalls are better and if there’s a super-secret menu. He smiled and said, “I don’t eat there. It’s for the tourists.” Wonderful! I got that same answer when I asked about a guide about the Beijing Night Stalls. So if you think that you’ll be sitting next to locals after a long day of work, think again.

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The other question is if they are serving the same food and menus. Indeed, it’s all grilled meats, poultry, fish and vegetables along with your fried foods. The prices may differ from 5MAD ($0.50us) between stalls but that’s not much of a difference. Most have laminated English menus.

Some will grab you and tell you that they are different, but really it isn’t. It’s like those halal carts in New York City. It’s all the same meat or meat-type product.

Some stalls will have the steamed sheep’s head in a gravy-like broth served over couscous, but I passed on that. I told the hucksters that I had sheep’s head for lunch.

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Then there is the popular Marrakesh delicacy, snail’s soup. I was up for that challenge, but needless to say, it’s not something I recommend. It’s too earthy and murky tasting and I don’t seek out snails to begin with. I’m not that Andrew Zimmern guy from Travel Channel. If you do go for it, it only costs 10-15MAD.

You’re safe bet is the grilled meats, breads, fries and some Moroccan treats. Wash it down with the local drink of choice, bottled water. I passed on the raw vegetables and salads. I suggest you do as well, since who knows where that is from and how many flies have been swarming around it.

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The grilled meats are cooked over searing hot coals so it kills any bacteria. The bread is baked that day so you can make yourself a little sandwich or dip in the hot sauce or mild tomato sauce. It’s served on a hot skewer as well. Just avoid having it contact with a plate. The stalls don’t have running water and who knows how that plate was washed. Each stall has plenty of butcher’s paper at the table.

How was it? It was good. Hearty, filling, basic. The hot sauce gave it some nice flavor. You’re going for atmosphere, not food.

For how to pick which stall to go, if you do I lap like I did, you’ll be grabbed, harassed and barked at to no end. You just need to go in with a fun attitude and joke with them. I grabbed them as well. They will appreciate your good humor. They have a competition with each other and it can get boisterous.

Guy: “Hello. Français? English? Please sit.”
Me: “I’m going to check to see if I have a reservation at stall No. 14, if not I’ll come back. Do you have Groupon deals?”

That confused him.

If you don’t want to be yelled at, just pick a stall at the end of the row like I did.  I sat down at No. 1 because there was a lot of seating and I could make a quick exit. Sit facing the pathway, not with your back to it because you’ll get fake watches shoved in your face while eating. It can startle you. Plus, you want to see the parade of tourists past by.

The thing that I found funny is that while you are sitting down, other push carts will pass by and sell you more food and treats.

My total bill for water, grilled chicken, fries and an Moroccan pastry was 70MAD, about $7-8. Not a bad deal, and it comes with a show.

Café de France is a Great Place to Watch a Sunset in Marrakech

There’s no filter, and now there’s untouched. Here are some unaltered photos from tonight’s sunset over the Jamaa El fna.

You can witness this beauty for yourself for the price of a mint tea or other soft beverage at Café de France, Marrakech’s iconic cafe. It was heavily featured in travel writer Peter Mayne’s 1953 novel, A Year in Marrakesh.

What was true then is somewhat true now, the cafe is frequented mostly by older men. Today, the bottom floor acts as a gentleman’s club to play cards, smoke, read the paper and talk about the day’s events. Upstairs is for the tourists who cram into small tables to overlook the action from before. What becomes a mighty roar from the square because a more gentle buzz from two stories up.

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While the vantage points offers a great view of the sunset (today was at 6:55pm), the view from below is a little off-center and obscured by the merchant stalls and their canopies. It’s fun to look through the zoom of your camera to see the action from far away. A camera is an easy-to-use device that you take quality pictures with other than your phone.

Every city should have a major cafe. Off the top of my head — Café Mozart in Vienna, Café Louvre in Prague, Café du Monde in New Orleans and Café de Flore in Paris.

Café de France’s is Marrakesh, and it does live on its reputation and location. The coffee and mint tea is unremarkable, but for 15MAD ($1.55) you sit down for a few hours and not be bothered.

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A few things to know, don’t expect smiling service or wi-fi. The waiters, who speak mostly French with some English, are what you would expect from a place that serves tourists all-day and night. When you want to pay, just get up, find your guy and tell him what you ordered.

I’ve been three times in my stay and all three waiters used the same line. I try to pay for a 15MAD drink with a 50MAD bill was told, “Sorry, no change. Come back tomorrow.” After you give a puzzled look, they then give you your change. When I got the same line from another waitor, I said, “I got that line yesterday, you need some new jokes.” When I eventually got the same waiter the first time I came, I passed by him and said, “I came back, you happy now?” He smiled and pointed up, “Upstairs, it’s better.” There’s a restaurant upstairs. Most reviews would disagree with the quality.

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I don’t mind that it’s all tourists. It’s a perfect meeting spot. I met some lovely Brits this week on holiday and we talked about how crazy the scene is down in the square. If you see some couples trying to take a selfie on the terrace, offer to take it for them. You might …. gasp … meet some friendly people.

If you sit deeper into the cafe away from the stairs, you can pinch some free, but weak wi-fi from a hotel nearby. Then you can take some Instagram photos to make all your followers jealous. Not that I did. Ohhhh, look at this link, how did that get here?

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Shopping The Marrakesh Souks Is Not For The Weak of Heart or Wallet

Let’s go souking now, everybody’s shopping now, come on a shopping spree with me!

It’s souk Sunday here in Marrakesh. While most of the stores are open year-round and at various hours, it seemed Sunday was just as good a time as ever to get harassed by shopkeepers for multiple hours.

It’s like the shopping equivalent of schoolyard bullying. Instead of trying to steal your lunch money, the merchants are trying to steal your lunch money in return for something that you don’t need.

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Souk shopping is pretty much like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul except that here in Marrakesh, that doesn’t seem to be much order or structure. There’s kind of a fabric section. There’s kind of a metal section. There’s kind of a leather section.

The similarities are far greater. You’ll get harassed to no end. If you even glance towards the direction of a shop, you’ll get followed for two minutes. It will start with “Where are you from?” either in French or English. If the guy was talking to me in French, I’m not sure if I should have been flattered or insulted. Then again, the majority of tourists here are French.

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The aggression can get pretty intense. Today, I looked towards a shop of head wraps and the guy pretty much grabbed me, took my hat off and started wrapping my head. I’ll admit, I was a little bit panicked. “Not to buy, not to buy, look here, look here” he kept on saying. His hold on me was good. After a few seconds, “This is not good. Please stop.” I almost pulled the “I’m from New York” card.

I had to squat down to get him and the wrap off of me. I yelled, “NO” and walked off.

Yeah, they don’t show you that aspect in the travel and tourism videos and promotional materials. Come shop at the souks and get molested with fabric.

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I can see why the souks can be a shopper’s paradise. I can’t attest to the quality of the fabrics or metal works, but it does look better than the shit you see at Pier One Imports or Anthropologie. On of the other hand, after hours of walking through, it does seem that the shops are selling the same stuff. I kept on seeing the same stripped bowls and tangines.

The amount of merchandise each stall has it’s staggering. When I get back, I want to look into how much profit these stores actually make. I have a feeling that if I returned in five years, I’ll see the same products … not the same kinds, the actual items themselves.

I did purchase some small things which I will tell you about later.

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My First Four Hours in Marrakesh Included Crazy Driving, Good Food and a Monkey Taking a Swipe at Me

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Two continents in one day. That’s how I do it folks.

My last afternoon in Sevilla was a wash with a massive rain storm, which was what greeted me in Bilbao two weeks ago. The rain delayed the flight and a bunch of people got to see their canvas luggage soaked out on the tarmac. That’s why I got a hard shell case … suckers.

The short flight on RyanAir was notable in that I want to stab the guy next to me who was snorting his snotty nose the whole time. BLAHHHH! We all got to depart down stairs on the tarmac, where I was hoping he would got sucked up into the airplane.

What waited us was another epic passport control line of an hour. When I got my luggage, it was just left off the conveyor belt in a pile, so anybody could have taken it.

The riad I’m staying at out comes with a driver to pick me up at the airport. It would be my first time that somebody would hold a sign at an airport with my name on it. As it turns out, this is a common thing so I was finally got into the arrivals terminal, all I see are a sea of guys holding signs with people’s names on it. I felt like Eli Wallach at the end of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly when he’s running around a cemetery looking for Bill Carson’s grave.

Found the nice man and his vehicle can only be described as a large van a church would use …. and this is just for me. As you can imagine, the streets of the Medina can be rather tight.

We get through the Medina gates into a cauldron of urban traffic hell with other taxis, motorbikes, mopeds and donkeys circling around one in other with no resemblance of order. The streets become tighter and tighter, but my driver is a pro.

Get to my lovely riad and inhale an amazing dinner. Now it’s 9pm and as much as I want to stay away from that chaos, it’s Saturday night and the Jemaa El Fna is where the action is.

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You can hear the square from ten minutes away. I would say you could smell it, but all you smell is various forms of feces — donkey, horse, cat, dog and human — toward the nearby traffic circle.

The Jemaa El Fna is completely bonkers. I had that thought in my head, “This trip to Morocco seemed like a good idea at the time.” The streets of Hong Kong, China, Tokyo and even Istanbul can’t compare to the slamdance of humanity in Jemaa El Fna. I didn’t even realize how large it was. At least a 1/2 mile square long.

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With that many people, you just have to be mindful of your possessions and keep your head on a swivel. In the Time Out guide-book, it says the square is usually two tourists for every one local. I was hard pressed to find a few dopey tourists among the masses.

This was a kind of trial by fire for me, so my mind was racing a little. I enjoy chaos, but throw in there live animals. You’ll find some monkey and snake wrangles in the mix among the drum circles and old guys telling stories.. One got away from its owner, took a leap at me and was pulled back at the last moment by a lease. I’ve been saying the monkey uprising is real.

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There are at least a 100 food stalls in the square, and they all look like they are serving the same food. You’ll have skinny Arab guys in track suits telling you that their food is different, not like the others. One guy came up to me an says, “Sir, sit down. We are waiting for you. Nobody gets diarrhea from us.”

I smiled and thought to myself, “You might not want to say the word diarrhea in any context when trying to get people to eat at your stall.” It remains to be seen if I’m going to sit down, but I’m sure it’s completely safe … right?

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After a good many laps, I went to the top of famous Cafe de France that overlooks the square. It’s a little long in the tooth, but for a price of a mint tea you can watch the action from above.

At 11pm, most of the stalls start shutting down, so I made way to a bar the guide-book recommended that’s open late. As I discovered, there’s not much “life” in the “nightlife” in the Medina, at least at this place. More on that later.

Trying to get back to the riad was a little daunting. My data plan doesn’t work in Morocco, so it’s going to be a chore getting around without a  free wifi hotspot. Along the way, shady characters will try to walk you to your place for money. Yeah, that’s not going to work out for me.

That’s night one in the books. If you don’t hear from me this week, avenge my death.